There is no arguing that Susan Collins is an excellent story-teller. These books are hard to put down once you get started with them. As it happened, I was confined to the couch on Friday, recovering from a minor procedure, so I didn't have to put them down. Even so, the compulsion to stay with the story and keep turning pages was very strong. Dearly Beloved looked at me with Mockingjay later in the day, asking whether it wasn't one of the Hunger Games books, and was a bit startled when I told him it was the last one and I'd read the second one already that day...
However, when I go back - as I did when I first wrote on this topic - and compare them with YA dystopian fiction that was written when I was the age of the current generation for whom this trilogy is intended, I am still struck by just how incredibly violent and lacking in hope these books are in comparison. I've recently re-read The Chrysalids and wrote about it not long ago - see here. I did make the point in that post that John Wyndham is unusual, given his focus on the human and emotional experience of his protagonists, but I'd also like to qualify that a bit by adding that in the course of his narrative, when there are acts of violence - and there are - there is a context for them that is part of a real life and death struggle for the characters. At the end of The Chrysalids, while David and his friends have had to face many ordeals and losses, they have a future ahead of them that pays tribute to their past while promising better things.
Catching Fire, the second of Collins' trilogy, sees Katniss and Peeta on the publicity juggernaut in the wake of their victory in the Hunger Games. It is far from a simple victory tour though, as Katniss has inspired the people by her attitude in playing the Games - her final stance which forced a situation that brought both herself and Peeta back alive at the end, being just one incident of perceived rebellion. In response, the people of the different sections are beginning to fight back, and the powers that be insist that Katniss downplay her inherent character, become again the soft, feminine part of the romantic duo that captured everyone's imagination, and do nothing to further inflame the people - with dire consequences to her mother, Prim, Gale, and his family if she transgresses. It doesn't work out that way - her impromptu eulogy to the people in Rue's section, results in the outbreak of what was clearly a preplanned protest - which both Katniss and Peeta witness, alerting them both to what they may not be seeing in other districts.
In a shocking departure from regular tradition, the Hunger Games in this next year, where Katniss and Peeta expect to be mentors for the tributes from Section 12, are twisted so that the tributes are to be chosen from all the winners from previous Games. For Section 12, that means Katniss, as the only female winner will definitely be going back into the arena, and then there is the choice between Haymitch and Peeta. Haymitch is chosen, and predictably, Peeta volunteers in his stead, in order to continue to protect Katniss. Katniss has other ideas though, and plots with Haymitch for support to ensure that it is Peeta who will make it home, resigning herself, this time, to death. However, there are many other agendas running beneath the main narrative, and ultimately, what emerges is a deeply laid plot to make sure that Katniss, the girl on fire, who has become the emblem of resistance, makes it out of the arena alive.
Inevitably, in the third book, there is a full scale uprising, masterminded from the bunkers of Section 13 - a section believed, until then, to have been destroyed many years previously. They are behind Katniss' survival and extraction from the arena, aided and assisted by those who have been operating covertly in The Capitol and other sections for years, awaiting the right time to move. It is this last book that I found dragging me down, as it seemed that for every gain there were far greater losses - and for Katniss, everything she has every held dear and fought for on a personal level, seems to be taken from her.
The rebels win, in the end. But Katniss has lost Prim, her stylist Cinna - one of the few whom she trusted throughout the artificiality of the Games - her mother, still alive but who, in the face of Prim's death takes herself to a distant section away from Katniss to work as a healer, Gale, who, while loving her, cannot live with the fact that she can't love him the way he wants to be loved, and dozens of others who, she feels have sacrificed themselves for her - even though as The Mockingjay, she represented something far more than just herself. She marries Peeta in the end, and a very long time later - because he wants them so much - they have two children. But, the tone at the end of the book is laced with pain, regret and a sense of enormous loss, and Katniss' vision of the future seems to be more about what her children will never know or understand. It's almost as if there is nothing from her past that was good that can be brought forward to her present. As if, due to the enormity of her loss, even the good things are tainted.
Other people may come away from this trilogy with a different sense, but that's how the books have left me. I wouldn't say don't read them. I would say, read them with some caution perhaps, and if your children are reading them, read them together. I would also still maintain, as I did in my earlier posts on the first book, that they are not books for kids under fifteen or sixteen... They may have sanitised the screenplay and made the first film softer than the book, and in all likelihood, to retain the PG rating, they'll do the same with the sequels. However, the Collins doesn't pull her punches in the books, and that's something of which to be mindful.